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The legal ramifications of abusive relationships

Partners who exhibit signs of control — putting passwords on your phone and acting jealous without justification — could be a warning sign that you’re in an abusive relationship, Toronto family lawyer and life coach Leanne Townsend tells Global News’ Dating and Relationship Show.

A common trait among abusers is the desire to control their partners — directing where they can go and who they can associate with, Townsend says.

“Jealousy goes hand in hand with that. If (your partner) is jealous of your old boyfriend or ex-husband and there’s no reason to be, that would be a huge red flag,” she says.

In the early days of a relationship, a potential abuser won’t necessarily show any signs of aggression, and in fact, may appear to be very charming, Townsend explains, adding people often deny the voice in their heads telling them there’s trouble.

“Narcissist abusers are very charming in the beginning and everything seems wonderful,” she says. “They often want to get exclusive with you very quickly and make you a goddess on a pedestal.”

If the abuse escalates — either with physical violence or threats of bodily harm — that constitutes a criminal offence and, at that point, you should call the police, Townsend says.

“The police will lay a charge and initially remove (the abuser) from the home,” she says. “That’s something many people don’t understand — they don’t have control over the process. Police have the authority to lay a charge and only the Crown can withdraw it.”

Once charged, the perpetrator will be taken to the police station, and then bail court, and if he’s released there will be conditions on him, including an order to stay away from the victim, she adds.

Townsend acknowledges that the accused sometimes violate the conditions of their bail and that there have been numerous inquests in domestic violence situations resulting from abusers murdering their victims after their release.

“You can’t ever 100 per cent protect yourself,” she says. “Women’s shelters are designed to protect women, but if you’re dealing with someone who is mentally ill, unless they’re locked away, you have to do whatever you can to protect your own safety.

“Talk to someone. Many people are ashamed or embarrassed and don’t tell anyone, and abusers often cut them off from friends and family and try to isolate them.”

There are a variety of resources available to help victims stay safe, including the Assaulted Women’s Hotline, which can put victims in touch with other support associations in their community, Townsend says.

First-time offenders can sometimes have their bail varied to allow for contact and to return to the home if the victim consents, but they typically have to enter a guilty plea and agree to attend a counselling program, Townsend says, noting that in Toronto the 16-week Partner Assault Response Program is designed to enhance victim safety and increase client accountability.

“Even if you’re not charged, but recognize you have an anger issue, counselling is something you need. I think everyone can benefit from some form of counselling and thankfully we are moving away from the stigma of it,” she says.

Abusive relationships are particularly difficult when children are involved, and studies suggest the impact is dramatic — regardless of whether they’re in the room when the abuse happens, Townsend says.

“Parents delude themselves into thinking the children aren’t affected," she says.

"There’s emotional trauma for children who live in a home with violence. Research shows that boys who grow up in homes where the father is abusive toward the mother are more likely to end up being abusers (themselves), and girls will often seek out abusive relationships,” she says, adding that police and Crown attorneys have an obligation to report these situations to Children’s Aid.

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